By WHITNEY ROYSTER
Star-Tribune environmental reporter
JACKSON -- Residents here pressed wildlife officials this week to outline specific circumstances under which mountain lions can be killed if the animals encroach on human territory.
As the Wyoming Game and Fish Department presented its draft mountain lion management plan, public discussion shifted to a controversial case last year when a lion walked through a campground near Slide Lake, prompting wildlife officials to kill the cat and her kitten.
After some back and forth between Bernie Holz, area manager for the Pinedale/Jackson area for Game and Fish who made the call to kill the lion - and citizens, Bill Rudd, assistant wildlife division chief weighed in.
"When mountain lions live where people are, we are going to err on the side of people," Rudd said. "We don't want to take cats unnecessarily. There may be times when we err on one side or another. We're not going to solve that tonight."
Still, people hammered Game and Fish, saying a license for the cat was issued a month before she was seen in the campground, and that the cat had to travel through the campground area to get up and away from people. People also said she never acted aggressively toward humans.
Jackson was the last stop in Game and Fish's state tour for public discussions about the draft plan. The plan would set mortality limits for the cat to regulate its numbers.
But getting a handle on the number of the elusive and secretive mountain lions in Wyoming is tricky.
Chuck Anderson with the trophy game section of Game and Fish said managers don't have the resources to do exhaustive studies of mountain lion numbers, but officials look at population shifts and age structures in both collared and hunted animals.
Mountain lions have been managed as a trophy game species in Wyoming since 1974. Hunters killed 181 mountain lions in 2004, down from 213 animals in 2001, according to Game and Fish data.
Hunting with hounds will still be allowed under Game and Fish's draft plan. Anderson said it provides a "traditional" recreation opportunity, and hunters can reduce take of female lions when hunting with hounds. Tracks may lead to kittens, and hunters can see the sex of the cat more easily when it is treed.
Nancy Shea asked why mountain lion hunting continues in Wyoming.
Anderson said it was a "traditional, recreational hunting opportunity." He also said hunting will help reduce lion densities near humans, address impacts to prey species and reduce conflicts with livestock.
Zeenie Scholz asked whether the department could demonstrate that livestock depredations were reduced and if prey species rebounded when lions were hunted. Anderson said those connections are "anecdotal."
Tim Mayo asked how often mountain lions are responsible for cattle depredations. Anderson said between zero and 2 percent, but more for sheep.
Mayo also asked at what point a lion is considered a "threat" to humans versus when an animal is simply sighted.
Dave Moody, trophy game coordinator, said local wildlife officials have "latitude" in determining a threat, and there is "no hard-core protocol. There's a lot of leeway."
Environmental reporter Whitney Royster can be reached at (307) 734-0260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.